Researchers studying marine plastics on Australia’s Cocos Islands, which is comprised of two coral atolls, have estimated that there are more than 414 million pieces of trash on the islands, and the vast majority of that plastic pollution is buried in the sand, not visible to the naked eye without digging. Because this plastic is buried, and people who conduct surveys of plastic pollution on the world’s coastlines don’t look for buried rubbish, the amount of plastic pollution is much more magnified than previously thought, the scientists wrote in their paper, titled “Significant plastic accumulation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Australia.” 

This plastic pollution was collected in Newport Beach, CA in less than 10 minutes.

“Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous in our oceans, and remote islands are an ideal place to get an objective view of the volume of plastic debris now circling the globe,” University of Tasmania research scientist, Dr. Jennifer Lavers, lead author of the study, said in a statement released by the university. “Islands such as these are like canaries in a coal mine and it’s increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us,” Lavers said.

The researchers estimate that islands in the Indian Ocean are littered with more than 238 tons of plastic, including 977,000 shoes and 373,000 plastic toothbrushes. 

“Our estimate of 414 million pieces weighing 238 tons on Cocos (Keeling) is conservative, as we only sampled down to a depth of 10 centimetres and couldn’t access some beaches that are known debris ‘hotspots’.

“Unlike Henderson Island (which the researchers dubbed the most densely plastic-polluted island in the world), where most identifiable debris was fishing-related, the plastic on Cocos (Keeling) was largely single-use consumer items such as bottle caps and straws, as well as a large number of shoes and thongs,” Dr. Lavers said.

The researchers say these remote islands, because there are no real efforts to clean the debris from the shorelines, are ideal barometers into debris accumulation trends.

The paper, Significant plastic accumulation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Australia,’ is freely available on the Scientific Reports website.